Every time I watch Alec Baldwin’s famous ‘coffee is for closers’ monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross (link, beware language NSFW) I think about the volatile world of high leverage relief pitching. Seriously.
"You can’t close the leads you’re given? … Hit the bricks pal and beat it."
Baldwin’s character is a pompous jerk who bombards the lower level salesmen with insults while boasting of his own track record. While incredibly obnoxious, he IS the best in the business. The sales hierarchy, much like a major league bullpen, is built solely on production.
The trade deadline brings with it opportunities for new pitchers with non-playoff teams to take the coveted closer role and solidify themselves as worthy of pitching in the most high leverage situations. Let’s take a look at which teams have given some new guys an opportunity to take the closer job and run with it.
Arizona Diamondbacks: RHP Jake Barrett
Replacing: Brad Ziegler (traded to Red Sox), Tyler Clippard (traded to Yankees)
The Diamondbacks saw the writing on the wall for their season well before the trade deadline and shipped Brad Ziegler to the Red Sox on July 9th. They sat in last place in the NL West, 18 games behind the division leading Giants. There was no point in holding on to a good closer who would be entering free agency when the season ended. Furthering their effort they shipped Tyler Clippard, the presumptive heir to Ziegler’s closer job, to the Yankees on July 31st. In the wake of both moves were left Jake Barrett, Enrique Burgos, and Daniel Hudson as the potential options to close games for the last place Diamondbacks.
Manager Chip Hale has thus far given the closing opportunities to 25-year-old right hander Jake Barrett. Mixing mostly fastballs and sliders with about nine mph separation between the two, Barrett has an above average swinging strike rate and a below average contact rate. He owns a 3.57 ERA and a 4.22 FIP on the season.
Barrett’s strikeout percentage is a respectable 22.7 percent, but for long term success you would like to see him cut his walk percentage a little bit from its current 9.3 percent. Seeing as this is his first year in the bigs there’s certainly room for growth, but growth with his command will dictate if he can stick high leverage relief.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: RHP Cam Bedrosian
Replacing: Huston Street (injury, poor performance), Joe Smith (traded to Cubs)
The Angels did not trade their closer; they traded their setup man. Joe Smith was shipped to the Cubs on trade deadline day. With Huston Street on the DL with knee inflammation, Mike Scioscia has turned to 24-year-old right-hander Cam Bedrosian to fill his spot.
In a fair and just world Bedrosian would have been given an opportunity to close without a trade as he has been by far the best relief pitcher the Angels have had this year. With a 1.12 ERA and a 2.12 FIP, Bedrosian has been dominant, striking out 31.5 percent of the batters he’s faced. Essentially a two-pitch pitcher, Bedrosian has a 12 mph difference between his fastball and slider. With the slider featuring well above average cut and drop, it’s a legitimate weapon.
Bedrosian has been given the opportunity to close because of the Smith trade and the Street injury, but even if both were still the on the team he should be the guy. Street’s 6.45 ERA and 6.40 FIP do not warrant high leverage relief work. The Angels have a lot of holes on their roster, but Bedrosian is a reliever they can build their bullpen around in the years to come.
Milwaukee Brewers: RHP Tyler Thornburg
Replacing: Jeremy Jeffress (traded to Rangers), Will Smith (traded to Giants)
I’ll leave it to our own Travis Sarandos to explain how well the Brewers did at the trade deadline:
the fact that both the rangers and the giants thought they were getting the brewers best reliever but neither of them did is hilarious— travis sarandos (@travis_mke) August 3, 2016
In 2016 Tyler Thornburg has raised the velocity on his fastball by almost two mph while adding almost two inches of arm side run. This combined with equal velocity increases on the changeup and curveball have led to significant increases in all the major categories you would hope for in a high leverage reliever.
Jeremy Jeffress and Will Smith are both very good relief pitchers, but Thornburg was the gem in Milwaukee’s bullpen, and by retaining him as the centerpiece David Stearns has a very valuable pitcher to build around.
New York Yankees: RHP Dellin Betances
Replacing: Aroldis Chapman (traded to Cubs), Andrew Miller (traded to Indians)
Look, we all know that Dellin Betances is incredible. He leads qualified relievers in 2016 with 2.5 fWAR and a 1.27 FIP. He’s been the 7th inning option for the Yankees only because he shared the bullpen with fellow relievers Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. Betances runs his fastball up to the plate at 97 mph and will change it up with a slurve at 84 (PITCHf/x classifies it as a knuckle curve, but Betances says it’s a slurve).
Betances has been incredible for over two years now and is still in his prime at 28 years old. His greatness afforded Yankees GM Brian Cashman the knowledge that he could trade Chapman and Miller for a king’s ransom and still have one of the best relievers in baseball. He will be arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, and the earliest he can be a free agent is 2020. As the Yankees begin their new chapter and turn the page on the Alex Rodriguez era, they can take solace in the fact that the back end of their bullpen will be set for the foreseeable future.
Pittsburgh Pirates: LHP Tony Watson
Replacing: Mark Melancon (traded to Nationals)
When the Pirates traded Mark Melancon to the Nationals on July 30th they were nine and a half games back of the NL Central division lead, but just three games back of a Wild Card spot. Most teams wouldn’t trade their All-Star closer in this situation, but Pittsburgh knows the sting of a one-game Wild Card playoff loss all too well. With Melancon an impending free agent the team was comfortable getting some players with more team control in return and handing the closing duties over to Tony Watson.
The 31-year-old left-hander has been in the majors with the Pirates since 2011. While he does have a platoon split over his career (2.78 FIP vs. LHH and 3.60 FIP vs. RHH), he’s certainly not disastrous enough against right-handers to warrant a strict left-handed specialist role. In 2016 Watson has seen a rise in both walk rate (nine percent) and FIP (3.66), the highest marks he’s posted in both categories since 2012.
The Pirates have decided to use Watson as their closer because he is currently their best relief pitcher. He’s not going to be lights out, but he’s certainly capable of handling the role. Ideally Watson is best used as a setup man coming in to take care of whatever late inning contains the opposing team’s toughest lefty.
Watson will be a free agent in 2018, so it would not be a surprise to see the Pirates trade him at next year's deadline just like they did with Melancon this year.
San Diego Padres: RHP Brandon Maurer
Replacing: Fernando Rodney (traded to Marlins)
Fernando Rodney was incredible in his time with the Padres in 2016, allowing just one earned run in 28.2 innings of work. He was so good that it would have been negligent of Padres GM AJ Preller not to trade the 39-year-old from a team that was going nowhere fast. Once Rodney and his invisible arrows were shipped off to the Marlins, the Padres asked Brandon Maurer to step in to the closing role in just his second year as a full time relief pitcher. Let’s take a look at how he’s done in that span.
The BABIP Maurer was carrying in 2015 was not sustainable; regression was to be expected. That combined with more walks and more fly balls turning into home runs make it easy to see why Maurer’s ERA and FIP have risen this year. The good news is that his strikeout rate has gone from well below to well above league average. While the walks and home runs have increased, they are now both right around league average.
In the grand scheme of things the 26-year-old right-hander is probably best suited for middle relief, but for a team in the midst of a rebuild like the Padres it makes total sense to try him in a high leverage role to see how he performs. This is just Maurer’s second full year as a relief pitcher, after all, and the potential for growth is there.
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Chris Anders is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @MrChrisAnders.